Saturday, 27 December 2014

Len Deighton – In Spy Ring Writer

As 2014 draws to a close, Kim Vertue talks to Len Deighton about his long and successful writing career and, amongst other things, his 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War and its screenings and stagings this year to mark the centenary of the First World War. 

The long career of Len Deighton holds some surprises: he was a pioneering food columnist and is a respected chef, he enjoyed success with an earlier career as a sought-after illustrator and graphic designer, he is an accomplished modern historian and researcher, a film-producer, dramatist and novelist… probably most widely known for his debut novel, The Ipcress File, made into the iconic film starring Michael Caine as British spy, Harry Palmer – the 'working class James Bond’.

Len Deighton photograph courtesy of Jonathan Clowes
Len Deighton was born in a London workhouse in 1928.  His mother was a cook and his father a chauffeur.  As Len grew up, his father would let him play truant from school so long as he read - which he did, voraciously, at Marylebone public library, developing passions for art and history.

He joined RAF special operations as a photographer, an experience that would later provide primary research for some of his books. After the war he followed one of his passions and studied at the Royal College of Art.  He would work as a chef to supplement his income and this confirmed his lifelong interest in good food.  When he graduated he had a successful career as a graphic artist, designed posters for the London underground and book covers which included the first UK edition of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

First UK edition of Kerouac's On The Road,
with cover art by Len Deighton
Here his love of literature and visual art went hand-in-hand. Has this partnership remained in his creative approach? Does art inspire aspects of his writing, and does he continue to sketch as well as write?  

“Not as much as I would like,” he admits, “Drawing is so difficult and so rewarding, but I don't set aside time for it. I can never find enough time in any day to do all the things I enjoy. But yes, I can't write a scene without having it visually in my mind, even if that vision is of my own creation. I studied art full-time for six years and art, rather than literature, is the basis of all my outlook.”

The Ipcress File was his first novel, published in 1962 and an instant best seller. The film of the book made a star of Michael Caine and is still classic cold war 1960s London chic (if such a genre exists). He helped persuade the director to allow Michael Caine to wear glasses on screen which created a new brand of masculine cool. He showed Michael Caine how to make an omelette for the scene in the film when Harry Palmer first has a chance to woo his female colleague. The conversation between Harry Palmer and his boss while he is shopping in the supermarket is a great insight into how food was regarded in post war Britain and Harry Palmer as a new working class ‘foodie’ hero must have helped pave the way for Heston Blumenthal!

The Ipcress File was followed by Horse Under Water (the only one of the quartet to not be adapted for cinema), Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain - the film version starring Michael Caine was directed by Ken Russell... apparently he really did have Michael Caine leaping onto an iceberg in that  iconic fur hat.

Michael Caine stars in the Harry Palmer cinematic trilogy
As well as the ‘Harry Palmer’ novels, Len Deighton has written two Bernard Samson trilogies; Game Set and Match and Hook Line and Sinker - mainly set in the London and Berlin of the 1980s - which were also bestsellers and adapted into a TV series. When a writer invents convincing, fully-fleshed-out characters, they often contain parts of that writer’s personality, or if they did not, perhaps parts of their personality stays with their creator. Is there much of Len Deighton in the characters of ‘Harry Palmer’ and ‘Bernard Samson’?

This is something he has considered before, “I say no: but my wife, my sons and my friends say, ‘yes’.”

Len Deighton giving Michael Caine some cooking tips
on the set during the filming of The Ipcress File
The film of The Ipcress File launched Michael Caine as a new style of spy hero onto our screens and celebrated sixties London. The spy who had remained nameless in the books became 'Harry Palmer' - a 'new man' - working class with no airs and graces, but also intelligent and cultured, confident enough in his good looks to make a statement with his spectacles, a bon vivant who could win the hearts of women with his sensitivity and prowess in the kitchen. Len Deighton now lives far away, in both time and place, from that London and when he visits from his home in sunny Southern California he admits, “I find England almost unrecognisable from the days when I lived in Soho. Perhaps I have lived abroad too long.”

A theme of communication and the lack of it pervades particularly the Samson books, and it is the essential romance of Bernard that he perseveres despite the difficulties he faces.  Do such characters ever ‘talk back’, asking for a reprieve from the conflicts Deighton decides to fling at them?

“This leads to an ever-present question for all writers. Do we control the characters or do they control us? My feeling is that the characters cannot be made to do something we need for the story but that no reader will believe. At the same time, they must act within the needs of the plot and overall structure. Characters must surprise the reader with their behaviour but not test the reader's credulity. It's what the economists call the 'snake in a tunnel' - they wriggle but they can't break away.

“I will admit that writing of, thinking of, and living with the same characters day and night for nine books - or ten books counting Winter - was undeniably disturbing at times. That's why I wrote other books, with other locales, between some of the Bernard Samson books. I was afraid I might go nuts.”

Bernard’s descriptions of Berlin and his childhood there read like a love letter to the place – how important are the locales and personal experience of them to Deighton’s stories and writing process?

“I like Berlin and Berliners too. The city and its history is deeply embedded into Bernard's mind and he takes Berlin with him wherever he goes. All through the Samson books I had to describe things and places not as I saw them, but as he did.”

Game, Set and Match
In addition to the many spy novels Len Deighton has written he has crafted unique histories of the Second World War – including Fighter and Bomber. His work was highly acclaimed by historian A J P Taylor.  Bomber was dramatised for BBC Radio in 1995 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World war. The adaptation was narrated by Tom Baker and the action reported as if in ‘real time’ over one weekend within Radio 4’s schedule. It was repeated more recently in 2011 on Radio 4 Extra and it is available as an adapted audiobook on CD.

With his books becoming best-sellers, garnering critical credibility and being validated by historians, is there a single piece of writing that he sees as his greatest achievement, one that he is particularly proud of or holds any particular personal meaning?

This is a challenging question for him, “Dissatisfaction is the springboard that makes a writer end one book and begin another vowing that it will be better. Goodbye Mickey Mouse, about American fighter pilots in World War Two is one of the few books that came out exactly the way I envisaged and planned."
One of Len Deighton's personal favourites
"As for pride - I see it as a sin, but when I completed the last book of the Bernard Samson series it represented well over a decade of work and I was pleased and satisfied to have completed the massive task I had set myself back when I started Berlin Game.

Dissatisfaction can drive a writer… Does Deighton have any other advice to writers starting out?

“Every book is different and every writer is different. My advice to anyone starting to write fiction books is to be ready to devote a great deal of time to it. Write every day, even if its notes and research. I have never completed a book in less than a year and most took longer than that. If you are waking up at four o'clock in the morning wondering if it’s all going wrong, it's probably all going well.

“I have found meetings and dinner party chat drastically interrupts my writing progress, so I have over the years become a recluse - or so I am told. For a fiction book: get the research done beforehand - especially listen to the speech patterns of the sort of people you plan to write about - and don't stop to go off on a research trip. Skip forward and keep writing. John Masters taught me this and I have found it a valuable rule.”

Len Deighton also wrote the screenplay for Oh! What a Lovely War, which uses popular songs of the time interspersed with facts about the First World War to movingly portray the plight of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ at the hands of the upper classes.  The film was shot on Brighton pier, involved an impressive cast including Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, John Gieguld, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave… and was directed by the late Richard Attenborough.  In a recent interview for Radio Times, Sir David Attenborough said this was his favourite film of those his brother Richard directed. “I think probably the most imaginative film he made as a director was Oh! What a Lovely War.  Shadowlands was a very powerful film, but Oh! What a Lovely War was out there on its own – no cinema film that I know of had anything like the bravura and the energy and the invention as he put into that.”

Oh! what a Lovely War was shown earlier this year by the BBC as part of the centenary events for the First World War and Joan Littlewood’s landmark production also returned to the stage in the spring. Instead of ‘celebrating’ war, the plight of the men who had to follow orders is movingly portrayed. Does Len Deighton have faith in human nature to learn from the carnage of the First World War and the atrocities of the Second?  His established role as historian seems very important in this process.

“My father fought in the First World War trenches and was wounded and gassed to an extent that the War Office told his mother was 'severe'. He recovered - or so the Pensions Dept told him - and worked hard all his life… and I never heard him complain. The other day on TV, I watched a history professor telling us that the sacrifice of a million lives in World War One was worthwhile! I was appalled. Appalled too that he didn't know that the total casualties were far, far higher."

Sing along... Oh! What a lovely War
“I added an initial sequence to my Oh! What a Lovely War screenplay to show how the war began. I researched this energetically and decided that World War One could have been - and should have been - avoided. I later asked both A J P Taylor and Bertrand Russell their opinion. They both told me that they believed that the war could have been avoided. Of course few, if any, of the politicians and generals who started it thought it would be more than a sharp engagement over by Christmas.

“It was the writer and critic Julian Symons who told me that I was the only person he knew who loved machines - he didn't say ‘better than people’ and I appreciate that - and suggested that I should write a book about this feeling. 'Machines fighting a war without humans?' I said frivolously and, along with other influences, his remark prompted Bomber.

“I had flown in Lancaster bombers and Mosquito fighters when I was an RAF photographer so I had some background. In Central London in 1940-41 I was under German bombing every night for three months, followed by V1 missiles and V2 rockets. I knew what the air war was like. Perhaps Bomber was not the right title, because much of the story is devoted to the Germans - fighter pilots, radar operators and civilians - I spent months in Germany getting all those details right.”

Len Deighton can count Lemmy amongst his fans, who has said that the Motorhead track, Bomber, was inspired by reading the book! Bomber was later followed by Fighter

First edition cover of Bomber,
featuring detail from a painting by Turner
“When I wrote Fighter, one critic was outraged that I had included the words of the Germans we were fighting. That was the cloud-cuckoo land so many were still living in. I am not a pacifist by any means but killing people you have never met is not something to be done thoughtlessly.”

The ‘cold war’ spy thriller, An Expensive Place to Die, takes its title from an Oscar Wilde quote. After being involved with writing for the screen for Oh! What a Lovely War and overseeing the screen adaptations of many more of his novels, does this mean that Deighton still admires Wilde as a dramatist?  

“Yes, Wilde's writing endures. When very young, I learnt the Reading Goal poem by heart. Wilde's skill as a dramatist is masterful. Writing for the stage is entirely different to writing for the screen or writing fiction books. I once said that a screenplay writer is to a novelist what a taxidermist is to a lion tamer. Perhaps I was hasty in that judgement but it was prompted by the fact that few screenplays are the work of one writer - whereas many, stage plays are - and so screenplays are usually a compromise. For this reason, I made sure that I was the sole producer of the Oh! What a Lovely War movie, and made sure it was shot exactly to conform to my screenplay.”

Over such a prolonged and consistent career, how has the approach to writing and his writing routine changed? How do Deighton’s approaches to fiction and non-fiction differ?

“I have always planned - and sometimes abandoned - my outlines, and extended drafts, for books. My non-fiction works, such as, Fighter, Blitzkrieg, Blood Tears and Folly - and also the historical fiction works Bomber and Winter - required travel and talking to participants. Fiction cannot be done to such a specific schedule and its looser plan requires discipline enough to toss away days of work when writing has gone in the wrong direction."

Many writers learn their craft by reading… are there any ‘stand-out’ favourites in terms of works or authors?

“Yes…” he considers, “I admire and enjoy the works of many authors and I frequently turn again to books I have enjoyed. I hesitate to name one from so many. Writing a book of fiction is a very demanding task and I see most fiction books in terms of the way the elements have been tackled - plot structure and the way it interacts with pushing the narrative along, dialogue and characterisation. Additionally, I read many non-fiction books.”

The many non-fiction books penned by Len Deighton include three influential cook books. He was home-taught the basic techniques by his mother, who was a professional cook, and then learnt ‘on the job’ after being given a chance in the kitchens for the Festival of Britain where he had started as a cleaner… In 1965 his book Où Est le Garlic (recently revised and re-published as Len Deighton’s French Cooking for Men) attracted favourable attention when it was published to coincide with the rising sales of his spy novels. The following year, Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook showcased the graphic ‘cookstrips’ he did for the Observer in the days before food journalism had really been invented. 

These infographic style recipe recaps, are great for quick reference and are to be re-launched in the Observer Food Monthly through 2015, starting in January. He also wrote a book to guide chefs and home cooks through and his basic course in French cookery and this also used his signature ‘cookstrips’ - well illustrated infographics that contain sound sources of knowledge to the novice and more experienced cook alike. The really observant may spot some of these pinned to the wall in Harry Palmer’s kitchen in the film version of The Ipcress File - still more informative than the current plethora of ‘eye candy’ recipe books launched every Christmas!

Deighton’s cook books are entertaining and clear, a great way to demystify cooking… does he have a favourite dish to cook or enjoy?

“Very lightly cooked new-laid eggs, in any shape or form, make a wonderful dish and, since I am choosy about unsalted butter and we make our own wholemeal bread, I am simple in my tastes. But I admire and appreciate skilled cooking especially French dishes.

What other chefs or food writers would he recommend?

“I admire the chefs who have devoted their working lives to cooking and who have worked in the great restaurants. The books and words of such men as Pierre Koffmann, Anton Mosimann, the Roux brothers, Anton Edelmann, Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers... and others of the same dedication… are inspiring. To understand what I most believe, read, the autobiography of Jaques Pepin - from whom I was privileged to have some lessons. It's a gripping book.”

Finally, is there a particular ingredient or gadget that is essential in the Deighton kitchen?

“I have a kitchen crammed with gadgets few of which (apart from the dishwasher) are much used. Two or three high quality kitchen knives are all one needs. I prefer old- fashioned carbon knives rather than stainless steel ones. Oh yes, I almost forgot - my electric knife sharpener - Chef's Choice 3-blade position model - is an essential for me.”

Len, Lights, Action!
As you can see Len Deighton is pretty cool - an inspiration on how to avoid being pigeonholed, to follow what interests you or makes you passionate, and to have a perennial, compassionate regard for humanity which is at the heart of any good writer.

Thank you, Mr Len Deighton!

- Len Deighton was talking with Kim Vertue

There is a full bibliography and plenty more info at the Deighton Dossier - a comprehensive fan-run website

Oh! What a Lovely War is discussed in this episode of Radio 3’s Night Waves (BBC iPlayer)

Lots of Len Deighton books available from

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

All Lit Up Down Under – a chat about words with Dave Graney

With Australia taking a third Man-Booker Prize this year, writer-musician Dave Graney talks to Remy Dean about creative culture, writers' festivals and the mythic quality often found in word-wielding of an Australian origin...


The Great Southern Land...

Australia, to me, has long been a place existing only in imagination... a British Romantic idyll of vast empty wild spaces, dwarfed only by the human soul.

From the early films of Peter Weir, I expect ancient bewildering magic or prophetic apocalyptic visions of awesome natural forces. Through films like Encounter at Ravensgate and Razorback, I get the poetically lit isolation and strange, sudden brutality. Dust and close-cropped hair. In Man of Flowers, and other films of Paul Cox - aching poignancy and poeticism spilling out from the sensitive hearts of wise fools across the fountained parklands or shifting sandscapes. The loss, wide open roads and estuary beds of 'The Triffids', the long-gone childhoods, cattle and cane fields of the 'Go-Betweens'... 'Hunters and Collectors' loading their long wide loads with deals and memories that thunder from ghost town to run-down suburbs. Bone-pointing, the shout that kills, kangaroo meat, road warriors, lake monsters, autistic organists, ghost ships sailing on empty seas to the land of the dreaming… Kylie Minogue in denim dungarees with a ‘designer’ smudge of sump oil across her cheek... or was it Vegemite?

Dave Graney drives us through his mythic landscape, whistling
I first interviewed Dave Graney more than twenty years ago, when he had recently finished with the hugely influential combo, ‘The Moodists’, and was exploring new musical territories with his bands, ‘The White Buffalos’ and ‘The Coral Snakes’. And, being the nicest guy in rock’n’roll, he has kept in touch and I have interviewed him several times since, most recently for the Brought to Book section of The Scrawl. Over those two decades, he established himself as a prime-time celebrity, was crowned ‘king of pop’, became the housewives’ favourite and now, with two books brimming with his own distinctive writer’s voice, is fast establishing himself as a leading light of the antipodean literary scene, a song-writer and author who has inhabited and helped to build that grand mythic landscape that is so far away, yet has touched me so often.

I have never been to Australia, but at times I have lived there. I know the real Australia is a different place. So, where does all this rich, myth-building imagery come from? What inspired these writers to create such uniquely rich and ‘cinematic’ visions? What marks the Asutralian literary scene apart from others? Who better to ask than Dave Graney?

“I love to collect small print run books of Australian poetry. Especially from the 1970s which was a great period of cultural awakening here. Some great poetic heroes from that time, lived out heroic, doomed junkie lives. One called Michael Dransfield, from Canberra - his poems about being a junkie are full of drama and poise. A woman called Vicki Viidikas also wrote wonderful poems of bohemian travels as a young woman through Melbourne and India. A young guy in Melbourne in the early 1970s called Charles Buckmaster - he apparently appeared on the scene, talking of the place he came from, Gruyere… We used to go for drives outside Melbourne looking for it and that is how we ended up where we live now!

“To me, his poetry is interesting for its self-mythologising. My favourite poet would be Robert Grey, an amazing writer from Northern New South Wales. He published a memoir called The Country I Came Through Last. In a way, it earthed all his writing for me. Before that, it was all hovering and suspended. When he fleshed it out with dates and times and his parents’ lives, it was exciting to follow it with flashes from his poetry I'd known, but it kind of took some of the power away.”

Richard Flannegan won this year’s Booker Prize (as Dave correctly predicted) and is the third Australian to do so. This indicates that there really is something special about, at least some writers, who emerge from the scene there. Is there anything apparent in the Australian culture that may be blamed for the abundance of creative talent and the distinctive poetic voices of its writers?

“Australia’s a pretty brutal country and artists are either cossetted by each other in their little scenes or ridiculed in the wider community.

“There was a famous incident just after the second world war called ‘the Ern Malley Affair’. A modernist magazine was launched called The Angry Penguins. Taken from a line in a Max Harris poem referring to men in tuxedos looking like, ‘angry penguins of the night’. Max was born in the same town I grew up in and was a very interesting character. To see his picture from the time, he looks like something from the early 1980s music scene.”

Max Harris, he was angry with penguins.
…the ‘Ern Malley Affair’?

“Two young poets, both in the army, played a prank where they faked a letter from a woman in the country, saying she'd discovered these poems written by her late brother, an itinerant farm labourer. Max Harris and the painter Sidney Nolan, who ran the magazine, announced the arrival of this poetic voice all over the next issue of Angry Penguins. The two hoaxers stood up and basked in the infamy their outrageous trick. They were James McCauley and Harold Stewart, both staunchly anti-modernist. The story reached the front pages of the daily papers, the only time poetry has ever done so. Instead of retreating, Max and Sidney taunted the hoaxers that, in putting on the mask of 'Ern Malley', they had created a true surrealist Australian poetic voice!

“The hoax knocked all the stuffing out of Max Harris, though he continued to publish some books - of which I have a few. McCauley was a great poet too, more in a pre-modernist style. His epic Captain Quiros's Journey is amazing. He ran a conservative journal called Quadrant, financed by the CIA, which still publishes… Stewart lived in Japan from 1966 to 1995, writing a single long poem!

[ There is an official Ern Malley website. ]

"I refer to a Max Harris poem called, Upon Throwing A Copy Of The New Satesman From The Window Whilst Driving Along The Coorong, in a song from my 2014 record, 'Fearful Wiggings' called Country Roads, Unwinding.

"Personally, I find Australian writers, hit me harder than any others. When they're good. Of course, there's a strain of international cafe bite sized bullshit that probably hogs more of the scene. Easy to ignore!

"I love the poet Les Murray, the historian Henry Reynolds, who was the first to begin writing the history of Australia from the indigenous perspective. He began by asking people to consider aboriginal people seeing ships coming into Sydney cove rather than through the eyes of the sailors cruising in. Simple but very powerful."

Recently, Dave has been appearing regularly on discussion panels at literary conventions. What were his observations at these literary festivals and what did he talk about at them?

“I put out a memoir in 2011, 1001 Australian Nights, through a small publishing house called Affirm Press and it was a very enjoyable experience. Each city is Australia has a Writers Festival and I did most of them over a two year period.

“I felt like an outsider - like a character doing a  cameo scene. I didn't feel encumbered with any notion of ‘career’ type networking or anything. Perth is the most isolated place in the world, let alone Australia - the festival there was lovely. All the writers stayed at the same hotel and travelled to and from a distant university in an old bus. It was like being back at school, but sharing the bus with the brains of the country.

“The Brisbane one was great, I met an Indian writer called Jeet Thayil, who was up for the Booker Prize that same year. He had a great novel about the dope scene in 1970s Bombay. Byron Bay was lovely, of course. It’s a beautiful place. In general, there was a depressing feeling that all writers had to be more like performers so you saw people having to ‘flick the switch to vaudeville’. I craved something serious, mostly.

“In Melbourne I had to do a session chaired by an Australian writer-musician with two other musicians. One was a Canadian who'd written a book about homeless world soccer, called Home and Away. In Australia there is a famous soap opera of the same name. Nobody told him. He read fictional letters he had written to Canada’s biggest musical icon, Gordon Lightfoot. It would have had a great impact - in Canada.

“The American was skinny and young and had his shirt open to his waist and wore a bandana. His name was Simone Felice. I enjoyed his book more than his music. I asked him where he was from. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I come from a place called Woodstock - they had a festival there once...’ I said, ‘oh yeah.... what sort of music do you like?’ He looked at me and said , ‘I really like a guy called Neil Young...’

“The audience ate up everything he said and read from his book. He was totally authentic to them. The other three - myself included - paddled as hard as we could but failed to get off the ground, really. Australian audiences are toughest to their own. Always have been and always will be. We don't really believe in ourselves much.

“In general, I like the festivals. It doesn't seem like any kind of work to me.”

I have enjoyed the way many Australian singer-songwriters use landscape as a metaphor for emotions and memory - they externalise the internal - and this is something I find really effective. It can be very evocative and poignant. I am probably thinking of a lot of the bands I was listening to in my formative years, yourself included, 'Triffids', 'Go-Betweens', 'Apartments', Nick Cave, etc.,. This seemed to be a characteristic of many Australian creatives - why do you think this is?

"I find that stuff a bit corny. 'The Triffids' had great impact with that geographical colouring. A great unit as a band. Lovely people. Peter Milton Walsh from the 'Apartments' is a great songwriter. He's probably much more literary than me. I get emails from him that are amazing! Nick created his own world and is a fantastic performer.

“My records over the last decade have been more personal. I was just very influenced by the language in the post punk scene. Bands like 'Wire', 'Public Image Limeted' and 'The Fal'l and 'Pere Ubu'. It was a brief and very interesting period.  I've also recently been much more into the musical side of it. I love to play guitar. Shoot me! I play bass with 'Harry Howard and the N D E' too. Also in a hip hop duo, 'Wam and Daz'.”

For some of your EPKs, you ventured into little films - not to mention your brief cameos for Neighbours and some imdb surprises - is this an area you would like to get more into?

“Film is tough! We did a soundtrack for a comedy called Bad Eggs, in 2003, and absolutely loved doing that. I loved being a part of a big machine. More please!”

In terms of prose on a page, what books can we expect from you in the near future? Will you venture into pure fiction, or keep it, at least loosely, 'biographical'?

“I am trying a longer piece. It's painful. I like the thrill of steering very close between fiction and not so much...”

'The MistLY' … 'Fearful Wiggings' - you change the name of your band projects almost with each album - please tell us a bit about your recent releases and how they differ whilst remaining indelibly stamped with your personality?

Dave Graney and Clare Moore
“I've played with Clare Moore all the way from 'The Moodists'. We had some success here in Australia with 'The Coral Snakes' in the 1990s. Since then, have had very little support or contact with what thinks it is ‘the industry’.

“Everything we do is very self-generated. We put out an album pretty much every year. We have been such a constant we have NO nostalgic power at all. Our activities having stretched across decades. All the albums we have done, since 'The Moodists', have been of a very high quality. So we have also never ‘returned to form’!

“The 2014 album is 'Fearful Wiggings' and is the second to be credited a s a ‘solo’ album - Clare is on it a lot on vibes. I did most of it, and recorded the vocals at Lisa Gerard’s studio (Dead Can Dance). The 2013 CD was Clare’s band 'The Dames' which was mixed by Barry Adamson in the UK
“The 2012 album was the best pop-rock recording of my band called, You’ve Been In My Mind. Previous to that we'd done Knock Yourself Out, which was the first ‘solo’ album, a lyrical explosion and filthy R’n’B pealer. Before that - apart from a couple of remix/re-recordings albums - was one called We Wuz Curious in 2007. It was an R’n’B masterpiece! In my humble opinion. Probably twenty albums before that....”

…and we’re looking forward to the next twenty! Yet again, thank you Dave Graney!

You can read an archive Scrawl interview with Dave Graney here... 
(PDF from newsstand edition)...

Info on all things Dave and Clare related can be found at The Dave Graney Show official website.

- Dave Graney was talking with Remy Dean

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Graham Masterton - Brought to Book

What was the most recent novel you read and thoroughly enjoyed?

I was given a copy of The Process by the late Bryon Gysin in a restaurant in Covent Garden in 1970, which I am still very slowly reading. He was not only the laziest man I ever knew, but he was a really wonderful writer. Who else could say that box of matches “chuckled”?

Unfortunately. I do not have the time or the inclination to read any other fiction. If I were a chef I wouldn’t spend all evening cooking, and it’s the same with writing. I am highly critical of my own writing but that means that I can’t read anybody else’s fiction without tearing it to pieces. I have never read anything by Stephen King or J K Rowling or indeed any other contemporary fiction writer. I regret it very much, because I used to love reading fiction, but it’s like a professional magician watching some other magician’s stage show -- knowing exactly how it’s done and spotting all the fumbles and all the mistakes.

Breakfast with Graham Masterton... photographed for
Golden Grahams' recent 'famous Grahams campaign'
( courtesy )
What was the first book you can remember reading that really left an impression on you?

Treasure Island. I still think that’s a great book for boys, Jim lad.

Do you have a favourite book, one that you have re-read a few times?

I like Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days in America which I dip into now and again. It has some harrowing descriptions of the American Civil War but also some passages describing nature which are highly evocative.

What have been the influences and formative experiences that made Masterton into a writer of dark fiction?

Edgar Allan Poe mainly, who I read voraciously when I was a boy. Nelson Algren and Herman Wouk, both of whom were excellent at ultra-realistic characterisation and settings. At the age of about 15, I became very interested in the American Beat writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac and their complete fearlessness in writing what they felt, which is how I got to know William Burroughs among others. Don’t talk to me about Allen Ginsberg, though, he was a prat.

Film poster for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
featuring iconic graphic design by Saul Bass
Who have been your favourite authors, and what have you learnt from them?

I previously mentioned those hard-boiled American authors like Nelson Algren, who write The Man With The Golden Arm and A Walk On The Wild Side. Also Herman Wouk who wrote The Caine Mutiny. I learned from them to make the characters lead the story, even when it makes the story tragic or awkward or uncomfortable. The reversal of one’s antipathy towards Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny is absolutely masterly and is an object lesson in how to control a reader’s feelings. The Man With The Golden Arm is gritty and tough and makes you root for its hero but despair of him, both at the same time. Another writer I used to like a lot was Len Deighton, but when I read his books... I could always tell when he was growing hungry.

Do you have a writing ritual, regimen or a tried and tested process?

I get up, I have a cup of horseshoe coffee, which was what the railroad workers of America used to call their coffee because it was so strong you could float a horseshoe in it. Then I start writing, even if I don’t feel like it. That was why I said it’s my job. I was trained as a newspaper reporter and newspaper reporters can’t have so-called writer’s block.

Do you listen to music whilst you write, if so how do you think it affects the writing?

I never listen to music while I write, although I know that a lot of writers do. I have always compared writing with singing, and so it is vital create your own rhythm, A book should be like a song – you absorb it without even realising that you’re reading it, and so I will balance and re-balance a sentence again and again until it has that effect. Having music in the background would interfere with that process.

After a long-running writing career, do you have any advice or ‘words of wisdom’ for the aspiring young writer of imaginative fiction?

Don’t copy – either style or themes. Be yourself. When I published The Manitou there were no novels on the market at all about Native American mythology which is one of the reasons it was so successful. Because it had raised awareness of Native American culture, Sitting Bull’s grand-daughter bought me lunch at The Russian Tea Rooms in New York and presented me with a framed picture of her grandfather.

So forget about vampires and zombies and werewolves...create some terror that’s entirely yours.

The Manitou - an original work of dark fiction!
STOP PRESS: Taken for Dead, the fourth in the Katie Maguire crime-thriller series is just out, this week!

Read the  earlier Scrawl interview with Graham Masterton here.

For more info and updates, check out the official Graham Masterton website.

Thank you Graham!

- Graham Masterton was talking to Remy Dean

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Erase the State: Remy Dean on 'Scraps', Twenty Years On…

On the 20th anniversary of his debut novel, Scraps, author Remy Dean talks to Winston Dominic about movies, music, art and finding the time to 'write the wrongs'.

Scraps by Remy Dean - across the decades...
So, it has been twenty years since Scraps was first published… where’s the follow-on novel?

"Arghh! Deadlines! There is one… it’s on the way… I already have scraps of writing that want to become a sequel novel. But I have been writing ever since, working on several projects…"

Fact or fiction?

"Oh, that’s a fact… Since Scraps came out I have had ten books published. That averages out as one every two years – not too bad… but they have been mainly commissions, fact-based books. And I have always been doing a bit of journalism and editorial work."

Your writing background was in journalism?

"I was trained in audio-visual design, which covered film, photography and screen-writing, but my first 'proper' job was writing captions and copy for Design Magazine - the magazine of the old Design Council. From that, it just kept rolling, bits and pieces for national newspapers... that led on to editors coming to me with commissions, which is quite a privileged position to be in for any writer. But I do love fiction - that’s where I find the joy. I have been writing stories since before I was a teenager and will continue to do so… no one can stop me!"

The Race Glass - three short stories by Remy Dean
The Race Glass came out this year and has a selection of short stories from different periods spanning your career, and there is the recent novelette, Final Bough. How do you think your writing has developed over the two decades since Scraps?

"Slowly… I write whenever I get the chance, but I fall foul of many diversions and distractions, such as the reality of living in a capitalist economy where you have to make a living. I could almost make a living from writing, but only by taking those paid commissions – if you are a serious writer, and a publisher comes to you with a commission, then you really have to say 'yes' – and so I found myself writing about things that I was not really interested in. Sometimes subjects that I wasn't interested in would turn out to be interesting once I started on the research and interviewing people around the theme... like Suede and Celine Dion! The last ‘proper’ commission I was offered was a biography of the Spice Girls... I didn’t progress that project. So to make a living, I became a teacher – I know, ironic – but that is something that does interest me. A more reliable, regular income, as far as any professions go these days, and it is rewarding.

"As for developing… the way I write has changed a lot. I tend to use my writing in different ways. As a teacher, I use words to explain ideas and concepts, this resulted in the book, Evolution of Western Art. I find it comparatively easy to sit down and write fact-based text in a journalistic way. If I just manage the odd half-hour here and there, this is something I can do, research and write about themes in a clear and academic way… or write articles for magazines… or pieces for my blogs. That is text as communication and though I still try to keep it lively and flowing and have a few surprises, it is not that creative. It does hone skills that are of great use when applied to creative writing, such as structure, logic, brevity and clarity. Any writing a writer does, does a writer good!"

Remy Dean in conversation, 1994
(courtesy questing beast books)
So creative writing is more difficult?

"Not really, I don’t find any writing difficult. Except filling-in forms! Creative writing, in my case, needs time to live inside me. The characters need to be able to play things out in my imagination… and creativity works best with an open-ended time scale. In some ways it is more difficult to actually do, yes – to find the time to focus without forcing it, allowing the flow of a story to come naturally with its own language and cadences, but that’s also much more joyous and rewarding, when you become immersed. That’s what I love.

"I could sit down and approach creative writing in the same structured and methodical way as journalism, but then the results would be much more formal and would read more like someone who was fresh out of creative writing class – just like so many authors.

"To write fiction well, I need time to settle into the mind-frame of a particular story, become absorbed in its world and mythos, get to know the characters. Then the story just flows into words. It is much closer to play than work. More like magic than science. It can take me a few days to get going along with that flow, though, so when my mind is constantly occupied with teaching and working and shopping and DIY… Yes, it can become frustrating – just as you reach that stage of being able to flow you have to divert yourself to do something else. But those other things also bring varied experiences and interactions with varied personalities that can only feed your writerly repertoire.

"I mean, there aren't many jobs like teaching in the creative arts - every year I get to interact with a fresh batch of fifty or sixty young, agile minds and talk about concepts and ideas with all these people from different backgrounds, bringing their own viewpoints and ways of speaking... I feel I know the 'YA' readership and want to write something for them. And the joys of parenting are innumerable... I've discovered and re-discovered many books, and telly series, and films, and had experiences that have only improved me as a person and also as a writer. You can't live in an ivory tower, can you.... unless you've got a big tower made of ivory, cocker! I couldn't go with that because I care about conservation... and those Greenpeace guys would be on my case, book sales would plummet... though maybe not in Russia and China,"

Then: Remy Dean in a photoshoot for the press launch of Scraps
(courtesy questing beast books)
So if you wrote Scraps now, would it be a very different book?

"Well... I don’t think I could write Scraps now! Just as, back then, I could not write how I write now. Scraps has a lot of energy and bravery in the prose – I re-read it this year and it still impressed me with its relentless pace and the way it relishes language, uses it in an almost physical, percussive way. It is so flip and punky, yet at the same time there is beauty and poignancy in there.

"Now? Well my experiences as an educator, editor and journalist have focussed my writing skills. I hope that my creative writing has more clarity now – a clarity that enhances rather than diminishes its poetic dimension. I hope I still take the risks…

"I still approach creative writing in a way that is closer to abstract expressionism, perhaps as a painter would use colour, brush strokes and texture, I use rhythm and words. I still pay attention to each conjunction and punctuation, y’know, is that full-stop really necessary? How does that ‘and’ affect the overall rhythm of the paragraph it’s sitting in…

"Aristotle used the term ‘melody’ to describe the flow of a dramatic narrative – I try to write in a way similar to a song-writer composing a piece of music – the length of sentences and syllables of the words sometimes create a form that is independent of their direct literal meaning – like films have mood music that enhance the action. I think my writing has become less staccato and probably less over-demanding of the reader – perhaps more ‘prog’ than ‘punk’ nowadays."

Now: Remy and Barnie, in 2014
So what are you working on now, two decades on?

"A few things, the main one right now is a fantasy story for… I was going to say young adults, but it is for the young, including those adults who can remember being young. It will be set in a parallel world …and there will be fairies!"

I’m guessing something like Martin Miller’s Fairies of New York?

"Maybe it started out in that vein, but it is actually being written with my daughter in mind – she has been the major inspiration behind it. It grew out of an old synopsis I had for a much more adult take on the fairy world, but that story has changed and become much richer and… very different from what it was going to be."

So from 'punk-crime-noir' to fairy tales?

"I always considered Scraps to be a fantasy novel. It has all the elements of a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale. A very violent and morally challenging fairy story."

But Scraps is certainly not a book for children!

"No, definitely not! It is aimed at adults. Nouveau adults, I suppose – I wrote it in my twenties…"

There is some pretty strong stuff in it. It caused a bit of stir, mainly because of its sexual content, some of which is not quite ‘PC’…

"Well, thank you. That was intentional. I find it – not surprising, in this society, but strange that people fixated on the sex scenes so much. Its core theme is morality, the morality that is given to a person from parents, peers, priest, bosses and so on and also the core morality that is their own, that develops from their own experience and thinking and heart… personal morality.

"There was a tendency to equate sexuality and sexual practices with morality. To have ‘loose morals’ used to mean expressing sexual freedom, or ‘sleeping around’. Not so long ago, even in this country, it was illegal and considered morally wrong to be homosexual – as if love was immoral and always, exclusively, linked to sexuality!

"I was interested in sex, as many people are! My favourite comment about Scraps came from Lydia Lunch – one of my most favourite authors and critics – when she said, ‘the sex was hot’. That was a huge boost to my confidence as a writer, especially coming from her – a great writer, a generous, positive force, full of energy…

"Yes, some people were shocked by the few pages that dealt with sex, which I think adds up to about four sides in the entire novel, but they were not openly shocked by the violence and murders, which are equally graphic and I would consider much more morally questionable! Our culture still accepts violence in its media much more readily than sex. It reminds me of what Lenny Bruce said on the subject of censorship – I can’t remember the entire sketch, but he makes a comment about a film that cannot be shown on TV because of nudity and an implied sex act, yet in the afternoon they show the story of Jesus, where there are floggings, infanticide and murder by crucifixion. He says that the censors are worried about the young and impressionable imitating what they see. So, that would mean we don’t want our kids to grow up and procreate, enjoy sex and continue the human race, but we’re fine with them killing babies and nailing people to big crosses…"

So what motivated you to write Scraps?

"I really enjoy writing. I wanted to write a good book... and there were characters in my head that needed their independence. I loved reading good books, but much of the writing in some books, that I really wanted to like, was too slow and flabby – I wanted to write a fast-moving, lively novel, where the violence was visceral and the sex was sensual, shocking or seductive. I wanted it to be… not boring. I hoped that the reader would feel something, get involved, question their own responses… and I wanted to irritate those who irritated me back then, the Mary-Whitehouse-Margaret-Thatcher brigade and their reactionary right-wing cronies.

"Also, I had read a ‘how to’ article about writing and it had a list of five things to avoid in a first novel – no excessive violence, no explicit sex, don’t have a main character with amnesia or a central character who is a writer and don’t try to be ‘experimental’… So I made sure I had all of those things in Scraps!"

Why! Why would you do that?

"The whole mind-set of the book was to buck the norm, question authority, challenge convention… It was sort of Dada. If there’s a wrong, I will write it.

"Also, a bit like the Decadents and the early Modernists. Artists like Cezanne and Matisse deliberately avoided the traditional approach, even if that meant doing something the ‘wrong’ way, going against the accepted colour theory, not using perspective in the usual way, not painting the figures to scale… Art usually reflects culture, but they were trying to change culture."

What were the main influences at the time?

"Music and cinema. In the author’s note to the 10th anniversary edition, I explain the connection with music – the novel has a soundtrack… Six Dead Birds, a song by The Moodists – Dave Graney’s band in the eighties – a huge influence, and that milieu merged with Luc Besson’s film, Subway, Alex Cox’s Repo Man and its soundtrack, a bit of Argento in the set-pieces… The title of a Lydia Lunch track, Motor Oil Shanty, also evoked some of the vibe along with The King of Junk, a song by Virgin Prunes… those were the seeds that sparked my imagination back then – there were many other inspirations, from art and life. I was reading books by authors like Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, Richard Miller's Snail, Nick Zedd's Bleed...

"I wanted to produce a kind of poetic collage of things that were important to me - books, songs, films, art - that I loved. Do a sort of David Bowie response to the culture I surrounded myself with, that had strongly affected me at that time. Things I have experienced through books and films have had just as profound an effect upon me as actual primary experience...

"Scraps is crammed with references and symbolism - not that it is explicit, and most readers should be totally unaware of that side of the story, but maybe they get the feeling that there is a richness and a poetic depth - 'more than meets the eye'. For example, there is a narrative structure inspired by the journey through the major arkana of the Tarot... and some of the characters partly reference important periods of Art History - Tom's amnesia is the Mediaeval period... Mary is the Renaissance... "

A bit of Quentin Tarrantino?

"Not really. Scraps was written around the same time as Reservoir Dogs was – contemporary with it. Perhaps it was down to the late eighties zeitgeist… I can see parallels with True Romance – which is no bad thing – that was in cinemas around the same time as Scraps was published, so the reviews that compared them were probably helpful in finding an audience for the book. And of course, Pulp Fiction was also released in 1994."

…there was talk about a cinematic adaptation?

"Perhaps some talk, but no one ‘walked the walk’. Not yet. I was coming out of a film background and Scraps reads like a ready-to-go screenplay. I tried to write visually, there’s not much internal dialogue, always more show than tell. I tried to evoke the dianoia - what the characters may be feeling or thinking - by their actions or in a poetic way with what’s going on around them.

"I think Scraps is already a movie, I saw the film in my mind and the text projects it onto the brain screen within the reader. But, of course, I'd love to see it made into a film... in the style of independent French, or Italian, films from the 1970s or 80s..."

You said, in the author’s note for The Race Glass, that Scraps was autobiographical…

"Yes, I say 'a highly stylised form of autobiography – in the same way that dreams are'."

So is any of it from your real life experience?

"None of it and all of it...

"I like what Oscar Wilde said in, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 'An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them'. But when you come down to it, personal experience, or your own interpretations of the experiences of others, is the only material a writer ever has to work with in order to link imagination to the, so called, real world. So all creative work becomes an element of self-portrait.

"The characters are collages of real people, amalgams, elements from different people merged to form one. The locations likewise, ranging from Wigan, Stoke and Blackpool to London, Paris and Rome... The events are exaggerated versions of real experiences and expressions of my responses to them, warped and coloured in different ways to suit the story. The story is as real as a dream – and a dream seems real while it lasts."

Do you have any advice for up-coming writers?

"Read or write whenever you can. Write because you love writing. Respect your writing, even if you're the only one that does! Publication is a nice bonus, but the writing defines the writer. Don't pander, just keep on writing and keep hold of the joy."

Thank you, Remy - long may you dream (and write) on!

- Remy Dean was talking to Winston Dominic

Scraps is available as a direct download e-book and also as a tree-book.

More info and up-dates can be found on the Official Remy Dean Weblog.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

‘Blow Your Own Trumpet’ – Jasper Fforde in conversation with Jane Williams

Jasper Fforde handles rejection well, having been turned down more than 70 times before he began his published odyssey in 2001 with The Eyre Affair – the first in a series of seven books to feature the character Thursday Next. In the 13 (yes thirteen) years since, he has become one of the UK’s most well-loved cult-authors - with annual fan conventions dedicated to his books - and is a bona fide New York Times Bestselling Author. So why was there so much resistance from the publishing world to begin with? Because his books were 'weird' – or so those publishers thought… There was not anything really like them (although he now gets routinely mentioned along with Sir Terry Pratchett) and so that meant risk, which publishers of fiction do not like.

Jasper Fforde photographed by Mari Fforde
Now, with 16 novels (that is 13 + 3) and more on the way, he has become the leading light of the genre… what genre? Ffordean novels are set in a parallel world that overlaps with ours, but is also very different – Thursday Next operates her detective agency from Swindon, in the Britain of the 1980s, where George Formby is President and the Crimean War is still on - actually that is sort of true in our real world right now! She is involved in ‘policing’ characters and unrealised plot threads from the literary world. In the first novel, she has to rescue the denouement of Jane Eyre and make sure we get the right ending to the story in our world. The world of books comes alive and creates a complex, overlapping world of imagination. Thursday has a pet Dodo.

So what genre is that? Well, as it can potentially involve any book in the 'Great Library' that is hard to pin down. Fforde’s books have been referred to as metafiction, fantasy-parody, fabulist, satire, comedy… and they are all those things. The books fit most comfortably into the emergent genre of parallel-histories – where authors work with alternative versions of how our world might be if certain historical events had taken different turns, or where the fiction of our history is treated with the same integrity as academic history. Fforde is a leading proponent of this approach, along with the likes of Alan Moore, Jonathan Stroud, Mark Frost, and steampunks like Liesel Schwarz - writers who have an unabashed sense of fun and adventure, who are not afraid to treat fact and fiction in the same inventive, irreverent and entertaining way. After all, ‘real’ history has often been shown to be a thinly veiled fiction.

Jasper Fforde's debut novel...
but not his first!
The Scrawl editors had an idea that it might be interesting to get writers to talk to creatives from other disciplines, so to test out this theorem, we put potter Jane Williams together with author Jasper Fforde... and they talked about America, Wales, children, cheese… and writing.

Jane: Thank you so much for speaking to me, is now a good time?

Jasper: Yes, I have just finished my supper actually.

Jane: Do you need to digest or anything?

Jasper: Why? What have you got planned for me? No, now is fine!

Jane: I believe that you are off to America, you have been to America before…

Jasper: Oh yeah, I’ve been going to America for the past 14 years.

Jane: Do you find that there is a difference between American readers and audiences and British readers and audiences?

Jasper: No not really…. In the UK, audiences tend to fill from the back forwards, in the US the audiences fill from the front to the back. Americans are a much more forward sort of people “I’m going to sit at the front…” whereas the British, “Well, I’ll sit at the back, just in case there are any questions….”

Jane: ...the British are terribly reserved?

Jasper: Yes, but apart from that, they are very similar.

Jane: So, you are promoting The Eye of Zoltar - the third book in The Last Dragonslayer series. I have two quite young kids and my son asked me yesterday whether dragons really exist, and this question is an extension of that really… what kind of age, or what type of audience, is the Last Dragonslayer series aimed at?

Jasper: It’s a good question really. The audience that I aimed it at was an audience that existed when I was that age, because young adults in my day - ha ha, ‘cause I’m so old! - Young adults, back in ‘my day’, were still kind of ‘Tolkein-esque’. Although my work is not 'Tolkein-esque', it IS funny and serious and all that, but nowadays YA - the young adult audience that I would be aiming at - is much more vampire orientated, a lot more sex and a lot more violence, and I’m not doing that. So, I’m now put in the ‘middle grade’, which is 12 to 15-ish.

Third in the Dragonslayer series
Jane: There are some quite adult themes, I’m thinking about Jennifer being an orphan and this idea that ‘orphans’ are a disposable commodity... and she does like boys! So those are some themes which tick the ‘teenage’ boxes aren’t they?

Jasper: I’m hoping to find a very sophisticated twelve-year-old reader - well, not very sophisticated - but I’m hoping to find a twelve-year-old reader who understands that this is a genre, but a genre which could be subverted. Which is a modern thing, I think - a very fashionable thing at the moment. In the same way as the retelling of nursery rhymes, with a different take on them. They are hitting the screens at 12A, which is the age that they are aimed at. Also, perhaps the older teens that don’t really want to go down the route of the vampires and stuff… who just want a bit of fun, really.

Jane: I don’t know what camp I’m in really, as I’m 40.  I would cite those three books (the Last Dragonslayer series) as being the books that I am most looking forward to sharing with my kids, who are tiny at the mo. For me they tick all of the boxes - they are ‘wholesome’, yet subversive, funny, yet sad at the same time, and I cannot wait to share them with my children...

You have strong female leads in your books, Thursday Next and Jennifer Strange, have you always thought about strong female leads?

Jasper: No, not really, I sort of moved into that area. The first two books that I wrote are my ‘Nursery Crimes’ books - The Humpty Dumpty book and The Fourth Bear. They had a male protagonist, ‘Jack Spratt’ but I found his side kick, Mary Mary, and his wife, Madeleine, much more interesting characters. So after I couldn’t get those published I moved on to write the Eyre Affair and that is the first time that I have used a female protagonist, which is much more interesting to me. I don’t know why, but it is. Strong, yet slightly vulnerable, driven women, I think are very interesting… What was it I said the other day in another interview? …Oh I know: Remarkable women are more remarkable than remarkable men.

Jane: Oh I like that!

Jasper: Oh good, you like that do you?

Jane: Yeah, I do like that, though I’m not sure that I whole-heartedly agree - there are exceptions to every rule.

I found it very interesting, in that you write in the first person and the narrative is very much a female voice. I just wandered how difficult it was for a male writer to do that with real validity - although I think that you pull it off really well!

Jasper: Thanks. That’s nice!

Jane: What was the first book that you can remember reading which had an impact on your life when you were younger.

Jasper: Well, this might have some bearing on it. The first book I remember reading when I was young - and remember, when you are young you are told to read 30 or 40 books - in my day it was the Ladybird books, 1B - John and Jane, and you are told to read these. Then, as your skills develop as a reader, all of a sudden you can choose to read a book! I can remember this moment and I was quite young, perhaps five or six, and I remember thinking that reading doesn’t have to be something that you do in school, it can be something that you can do on your own. You can choose to read a book. In the same way that when you can ride a bicycle you can choose to go to ‘Tommy’s’ house. When you’ve get your licence you can drive wherever you want and it is a wonderful empowering fantastic moment. Walking might be the same, for those of us that are lucky enough to walk - that sudden sort of amazing leap.

I remember going to my parents’ house and looking at their bookshelf to see if there was something suitable for me and I pulled down a copy of Alice in Wonderland. I took it into the living room and curled up onto the sofa and read it and loved it. It’s not a long book, so I finished reading it, and read it again. It kind of stuck with me, that very strange subtle humour. It is very funny and very clever. The characters are very real and strange and the whole world is very, very weird. I think that stayed with me and Alice - this very gentle and accepting, understanding character, who all these weird things keep happening to and she remains unfazed by it. She’s not girly about it, a squealing girly who says, “agh!” She says, “now I’m as big as a house so let’s deal with it!” So I think that might have had something to do with it.

Jane: I’ve done some background research on you. I was tentative about going onto your website as it is fantastic and filled with all the information that I may need and I did not want to sound trite or worry about asking you questions that you have been asked before. However, one of the first things that I read was the fact that Alice in Wonderland was one of your favourite books and everything sort of fell into place. Because there are so many bizarre and obscure story lines in your books , yet all of your characters take it in their stride... It's fine for Mrs Tiggywinkle to be a supercool superhero. [ Editor's note: Mrs Tiggywinkle is a ‘Bookworld’ character in the Thursday Next stories. ] There’s so much about your storylines that are hyper-real and obviously as soon as I read that Alice in Wonderland was a favourite book, I could completely and utterly see that… it was fantastic.

So, do your children read your books?

Jasper: Usually. The two smallest are too small really, the two eldest are too grown up really, but generally they do. My second son reads everything I write, so in general they all do. When my two eldest girls were teenagers it was quite funny really, as their friends used to read me and say, ‘Your dad is really cool, he rocks’. They would reply, ‘No he doesn’t, and you know nothing about my father, how dare you! He is completely unfunny and rubbish,’ although I think that they were secretly proud.

Jane: Your father was a banker which I would not have imagined, reading your work. I mean some of your storylines are fairly ‘out there’ and I just imagined this incredibly bohemian, literary upbringing acting as  inspiration for some of your ’crazy’ ideas, I mean, is this how you grew up?

Jasper: No, we are not bohemian at all. I mean dad was an economist. I think escapism was important in my childhood and teens. My family are fairly ordinary, we did not have a bad childhood at all by any stretch of the imagination, it was just very ordinary. I think that for escapism in the 1970’s and early 80’s there was a lot going on - some good sitcoms and very funny movies and I did a lot of reading. Most authors you find are fairly solitary people - I think that is because we have spent a lot of time on our own over the years. Within that vacuum, if you are not going out and shouting and jumping up and down with your mates, you are actually doing something - usually that means drawing, painting, reading, writing or anything like that. There is a strange duality in being a writer, you have to give up this ‘socialness’ to actually put in the hours for this bizarre sort of input.

Jane: When people meet you and know your background, and perhaps know your books, do they expect you to be the funny man at the dinner party?

Jasper: Yeah, they do… They say, ‘Jasper you seem fairly ‘ordinary’ to me,’ meaning, ‘I find you fairly dull,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I make up silly ideas and that’s where my skill lies’. If something happens over the dinner table, I will make some ‘silly’ connection. But mostly my family know me and it’s not anything remotely unusual.

Jane: There are so many things about Wales in your books that make me laugh, and they are so true! You have a strong personal connection with Wales...

Jasper: I’m not actually Welsh, but spent all my childhood holidays here in the Wye valley, which means my connection to the area goes back to 1966. My favourite river swimming spot has remained unchanged and revisited for the past forty four years. My Great Uncle farmed the Olchon Valley and is buried in Llanveynoe. My parents were married there in 1953. I have a Welsh wife, and two Welsh daughters.

Shades of Grey parallels Wales
With such strong connections to Wales - quite apart from having lived here since 2000 - it would seem obvious to feature Wales, in some part, in nearly all of my books. Some feature Welsh plotlines, others - Shades of Grey, Early Riser, Eye of Zoltar - are entirely set here. The Elan Valley is featured as a location in three of my novels, each Elan subtly different. The Elan is a particular favourite. We call it ‘The Empty Quarter’, an area of Wales that is magnificently desolate - upland moorland where little happens except drainage and sheep. It is not visited in any great numbers, but it seems to have an almost magnetic hold on me.

Further up North, we have Cadir Idris, a mountain that is once again heavily featured in Eye of Zoltar, but reimagined by me as a vast pinnacle of rock with stairs hewn into the stone, and on the top, the carved stone chair of Idris. I also made it permanently swathed in cloud due to the fact that even after three treks to the summit, I have yet to see the view.

Jane: As much as anything it is cheese that really makes me laugh. I work in Dolgellau and I have read, with childlike glee, that the strongest of your cheeses come from Machynlleth and Dolgellau...

Jasper: The cheese subplot was great fun - but the choice of place names random - I just liked the idea of Wales being a place in which super strong cheeses could be made in an unregulated way and then smuggled across the border to England, or ‘Poundland’, or ‘East Wales’, as we call it.

I often put adverts in the back of my books - the strapline to my unofficial Welsh Tourism plug is: ‘Visit Wales. Not always raining’.

In short, I write about Wales because I really love it, despite the rain, despite the fact that I don’t understand rugby, or watch Doctor Who, or can speak Welsh, or sometimes feel that a Welsh winter is like living in Tupperware. But if, as I once heard, that, ‘you can be Welsh if you love it,’ then I can indeed boast Wales as my nationality.

Jane: Do you have a routine to writing? Your themes and plots are so complex, how do you keep a handle on it all?

Jasper: I don’t, although I think that I need to start having a routine, because it takes me a long time to write, literally. I have several ideas at a time and I think, ‘right, what is going to happen with this next book’. The one that I am working on at the moment is called Early Riser. It is a crime-thriller set in a world in which humans have always hibernated. And you think, ‘ok then,’ this is a really interesting concept, because if we have always done it, it becomes second nature. How does this mechanism function and where can we find the crime and all this kind of stuff. So, in general, I just start off with these kind of ideas, then I put in a few characters, you know male or female. What kind of person are they? Then I just start writing and I see where it goes. But of course often this can lead you up a blind alley, and you have to re write it and then I have to try out something else... So planning would work a lot better! But I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work for me! I tend to get my best ideas literally ‘on the hoof’.

Jane: I’m fortunate to work, and be friends, with some really fantastic artists and very creative people and I have found that there are two schools of thought, either you plan, plan, plan or you ‘wing it’.

So when you have these ‘crazy out there ideas’, do you have a little Jasper that reins you in? How do you know if your ideas are working? Do you have someone that you can run your ideas by?

Jasper: No. I’m really on my own. All authors are basically on their own, unless they are working in close collaboration with someone else. There is a ‘little voice’ - the little Jasper that you mentioned - that says, ‘this is really too stupid’. For example in this new book, which is slightly more serious, every now and again I keep putting in silly jokes, which would make total sense in any of my other books, but in this book they don’t quite set the tone… and once you’ve played around with the character, set them up in 20 or 30,000 words, you know how he or she is going react in a given situation. Once everything starts coming together the book starts writing itself in an odd kind of way and the tone and the atmosphere all slot in to place.

So although the first 20 or 30,000 words may be difficult and may lead you down blind alleys, the rest of it can pop into place. There is always that little voice that says if this is working or this isn’t working. When the little voice says, ‘this is not working’, and you’ve just spent a week working on it, it can be fairly frustrating. But you have to listen to that voice. Ninety percent of writing skills can be taught to someone, and then they could be writing for ten years and gain another five percent, but the remaining five percent is the stuff that you can never, never teach – that’s the magic sparkle and the charm that brings a novel alive. It’s that last five perent that makes a novel, if you could put in that five percent, and the rest was pretty ropy, it wouldn’t really matter.

Jane: When did you discover that you had that five percent then?

Jasper: I dunno… when people buy the books! You get emails from people from the other side of the planet saying, ‘your book really spoke to me and I really liked it and it really made me laugh out loud on the bus!’ And you think, ‘OK, that’s really great,’ because you are communicating these bizarre ideas and then it kind of makes sense.

Jane: So was this fairly early on in your career?

Jasper: I wish…

Jane: Because I discovered you fairly later on… its only been in the past three or four years that I have been reading your work, and you got me through some particularly difficult all-nighters with the sprogs.

Jasper: Oh good, I’m glad of that... No, I spent the first eleven years of my writing 'career' not being published. I wrote seven books in eleven years. I’d been trying to figure out how to make it work - it’s only been through constant experimentation and merciless self-criticism that you finally think, ‘yes this is kind of working now’. Then you can hand it out to the publishers or agents and they say, ‘yes, we can sell this, this is pretty much there’.

Jane: So would this be your tip to an aspiring writer then, to keep plugging and to keep pushing…

Jasper: Yes, my tip to an aspiring writer is wholly counter to today’s way of working really. For example you can be a fantastic photographer with two clicks of a mouse, and you can do everything really quickly and really easily, unfortunately writing is not one of them. I equate it to playing the trumpet.

You can buy the best trumpet, buy the best books on how to play the trumpet. You can listen to the best trumpeters, you can talk to the best trumpeters, you can do all these things - join the trumpet players club, but really when you put the trumpet to your mouth can you play it? The answer is no. You have to put in ten-to-fifteen years of solid graft and practice.

There are no short cuts to writing. Of course, being human is part of that experience, but distilling what it is to be human on the page is something that you cannot do straight away, unless of course you are brilliant, as some people are. So, my tips for writers are: think long term, if you can move from the rejection of your fifth novel to the starting of your sixth with no loss of enthusiasm, then you have what it is to be a writer. But if after writing your first two chapters, you send it off to an agent and when they say, ‘no,’ you give up, then you are not a writer.

Jane: That is what I say to students that I teach in the visual arts. Funnily enough, fifteen years is how long it has taken me to be able to throw a pot on the wheel. Maybe it’s something about that magic fifteen years.

Well, thank you so much for your time, and really have a fantastic time in America. And thank you very much again, it’s been very enjoyable reading your work.

Jasper: Thanks.

- Jasper Fforde was talking with Jane Williams

There is a wealth of Ffordean information at 

Jane Williams is a potter who lives and works near the coast in North Wales, where she also appreciates cheese and teaches in the arts department of a local college.

A pair of Jane's jugs attracting one of her 'mad birds'